Thursday, February 09, 2012

Cargo culters

Cargo cults happen in primitive societies where people believe that performing some magic rites will bring in the white men with their rich resources. The term originates from Melanesia where an ancient belief that ancestors and gods could provide sudden richness combined with the modern experience of first missionaries and later - during World War II - soldiers bringing in huge resources. To seduce those ancestors and gods they performed rites, built mock airports, etc.

The term "cargo cult" has become a metaphor for symbolic not effective action. It has been used for the behavior of many Third World leaders after their independence. Someone has even described communism as a cargo cult because it copies only a few random elements - such as steel production - from economically successful countries. But as it doesn't really understand how capitalism works it is doomed to fail.

As I see it cargo culting is popular nowadays. The favorite rite at the moment is being pro-Western. I think it is no coincidence that the most pro-Western leader of Russia - Yeltsin - left the greatest mess. Similarly, the most pro-Western leader of Serbia - Djindjic - became infamous for the corruption of his regime. I see the LDP in Serbia as the most modern version of this cult. But it may not be a coincidence either that pro-Western Tadic has been criticized for having implemented very few reforms.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being on good terms with the Western World - the main power of our times. The problem is that these people think that that is the only thing they have to do. In fact developing a country is mainly humble hard work, like getting trains to run on time, providing good roads, having everyone pay his taxes, preventing special interest groups from becoming too powerful and having judges who really speak justice.

This does not mean that the cargo culters never deliver. Sometimes there is some big foreign investment or some EU subsidy is awarded. But if you have a cool look at the long term the effect is small, the result is instable (see Greece) and - given the financial problems of the EU - the money available is shrinking.

In educational psychology you have the theory of conditioning. Basically it says that now and then (unpredictable) a big reward is the most addictive form of conditioning. Lottery organizers know all about this. But is also works with our leaders.

The Chinese show how one should develop a country. Unlike Russia they don't antagonize the West. They simply go their own way developing their country. When they build a road or an airport it is ready on time and the quality is good.

In the mean time the EU and the US are sliding increasingly towards cargo cult behavior. The financial deregulation was a typical example of that. Nobody knew how it was supposed to improve the economy, but as it had been accepted as an article of faith that deregulation helped the economy grow it was supposed this would help too.

The big advantage that the Chinese have is that they are a country of engineers. They know how things work or are supposed too work and that attitude pervades into the way the country is governed. In many Western countries the power has shifted to lawyers, economists and social scientists. Many of them don't know how things work and - more problematically - they don't care very much. They prefer big theories above simply going to the shop floor and see what the workers are actually doing.

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